In the early years of this century, when thoughtful people anywhere discussed ‘the woman question’, Australia constituted the central case, the country where a progressive electorate and an engaged state were facing questions of gender equality head on. In 1902, Australia became the second country in the world to grant the full federal franchise to women, and, as Audrey Oldfield points out with a touch of historical envy, if New Zealand had federated with other Australasian countries rather than go its own national way in 1893, Australia would have been the first. Yet early enfranchisement hardly left a vibrant feminist legacy in Australia, which remained a profoundly masculinist society; in particular, as both the books here under consideration note, women’s active political participation in the years after enfranchisement has been strikingly low. This contradiction—an early but weak national feminism—forms the framework for both of these extremely rich studies of the workings of gender inequality in Australian history.

Audrey Oldfield’s Woman Suffrage in Australia and Kay Saunders and Raymond Evans’s Gender Relations in Australia are very different sorts of books.footnote Oldfield focuses solely on the Australian suffrage movement, which, despite its relatively short history, offers more than enough political complexity for her very dense study. Saunders and Evans instead have chosen to survey (through chapters written by eighteen different authors) the whole range of gendered issues in Australian history: beginning with Aborigine society and ending with contemporary feminism. Oldfield situates the history of Australian suffragism in the relatively simple framework of male power versus female disfranchisement, or more specifically, obstinate politicians versus dedicated suffragists. Sanders and Evans are much stronger in linking the inequities of gender to the whole range of social relations, from colonialism o welfare capitalism; at times, it might even be said, they do so at the cost of close attention to the internal dynamics of their own special subject, the interaction of men and women. From this distinction follow political differences: while Oldfield looks to the ‘liberal middle ground’ of Australian politics for women’s best hope, Saunders and Evans go in search of more left-wing traditions to unearth a radical feminist heritage.

Given all these differences, the similarity of the experience of reading these two books is striking: they are both jam-packed with much more information than they can possibly theorize or digest, and while the significance of their researches and scholarship is amply demonstrated, their exact meanings are much more elusive. I take this as an indication of the many possibilities of feminist scholarship in contemporary Australia rather than the opposite. It is as if there is a tremendous backlog of empirical investigations and analytic challenges calling out for attention.

The richness and fluid analytical possibilities of this scholarship have much to offer British and American readers in particular. Comparative history is always helpful in rethinking stale interpretations generated by limited national perspectives, but here there are special insights to be gained into common historical patterns and themes by considering how they are played out in the distinctive context of Australian gender relations. Historiographically, Australia is in a kind of three-way relationship with England and the United States. The themes of white settler society, of contact across cultural frontiers, and above all of race, move us back and forth from Australian to American scholarship. If the social conditions of Australian history are reminiscent of the us case, the link with England has more to do with legal and political traditions. This is particularly significant in feminist scholarship because the British legal convention of ‘coverture’, conceiving of women’s marital position in property-based terms, has such pervasive importance in the history of women’s rights in the English-speaking world. These and other common themes can be played against a matrix of the distinctive themes of Australian women’s history, of which the three most important seem to be: the overwhelmingly male character of early European immigration; the significance of women’s evangelical organizations, especially the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, in leading the movement for woman suffrage; and the early enfranchisement of Australian women.

In this comparative context we can begin by noting, as Gordon Carmichael puts it in the Saunders and Evans volume, that ‘there was no circumstance more critical to the history of gender relations in Australia than the fact that for several decades in the nineteenth century [white] men greatly outnumbered women.’ From this gender imbalance flowed several crucial developments: frequent interracial sexual relationships between European men and Aborigine women; an enduring ‘masculinism’ about white Australian culture, with its roots in this early bachelor society; and official encouragement of the immigration of European women as an antidote to both of these social patterns, which were so disturbing from a respectable nineteenth-century English point of view.

The chapter on gender and sexual relations on the Australian frontier, by Mary Ann Jebb and Anna Haebich, is particularly interesting from an American perspective, because of the similarity and difference of the issues in these two contexts. In the us, the primary paradigm for feminist reinterpretation of sexual relations across various racial divides has been ‘rape’, which has served to emphasize the power of white men over native and enslaved women. But in the Australian case, according to Jebb and Haebich, the emphasis has been on restoring the sexual initiative to Aborigine women, whose intimate relations with white men have long been seen as an extension of their status as chattels within their own culture, and in terms of the machinations of Aborigine men rather than as their own intercultural acts. The ‘issue of their motivation for entering into sexual relationships with white men’, write Jebb and Haebich, is ‘complex and unresolved’, but the emphasis in deciphering the history of interracial sexuality is placed unmistakably on power rather than powerlessness, on female agency rather than victimization.

Perhaps this different emphasis has something to do with how much more difficult it is in the Australian context than either the us or England to focus on ‘women’s history’ in isolation from men. The foundational fact of Australian women’s history is the great preponderance of white men in the colonial period, and the creation of a society which had very little need of women. One of the richest chapters in the Evans and Saunders volume is Raymond Evans’s own contribution, on the enduring legacy of Australian ‘masculinism’, particularly with respect to ‘gendered violence’. Here, when we have moved from intercultural relations to white society proper, the issue of rape does make its appearance, with Evans pointing out that the rates of sexual violence are higher in Australia than virtually anywhere else in the contemporary world, exceeded only by that other frontier society, the United States.